The supercar universe is beginning to resemble Marvel’s, with so many awesome, avenging members that the road—or the big screen—can hardly contain them. With its signature green skin and bellowing V-10, the Lamborghini Huracan Performante is surely the automotive version of the Incredible Hulk. With apologies to the Audi R8 and its movie tie-ins, there's no way Tony Stark—a.k.a. Iron Man—couldn't resist upgrading to a McLaren 720S; that super-suit of a car bristles with so much weapons-grade technology that the mortal inside can’t help but feel arrogantly superior. The Chevy Corvette ZR1 is Captain America, obviously—the humble-roots underdog who can still kick your ass with patriotic spirit and ingenuity.
And the Ferrari 488 Pista? I’ll go with Spider-Man, as like Peter Parker after the arachnid bite, the high-performance version of the 488 GTB seems both a freak of nature and a creature of destiny. It’s super-powered, sure, but also fearlessly gymnastic, graceful, and oh-so-sticky. And it looks great in red and blue.
The Ferrari spun me into its seductive web in Italy, where I lapped the Pista at the company’s legendary Fiorano test circuit then pushed it nearly as hard in the Emilia-Romagna countryside, where this hopped-up 488 delivered as much pure, soulful entertainment as any car I’ve recently driven. As the successor to a long line of mid-engine “Special Series” Ferraris—including the most-recent one, the 458 Speciale—the 488 Pista has big shoes to fill. To fill those loafers to bursting, the Pista brings the biggest power gains, and the most intensive transfer of Ferrari racing technology, of any Special Series model yet.
First, this is the strongest eight-cylinder Ferrari to ever rocket out of a showroom, with 710 horsepower and 568 pound-feet of torque from just 3.9 liters of twin-turbo V8. That’s a 49-horsepower jump from the standard 488, with seven additional pound-feet to boot. Coincidentally or not, the Pista precisely matches the horsepower and torque of the McLaren 720S, with its barely-larger, 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8. Curb weights also seem a toss-up: The Pista shaves 200 pounds from the already-svelte 488 GTB, resulting in a claimed dry weight of just 2,816 pounds. If that number is accurate, that’s 13 fewer pounds than McLaren’s carbon-fiber-intensive 720S. In fluid-filled form, the Ferrari weighs 3,047 pounds at the curb: 106 fewer pounds than a Porsche 911 GT3 RS, about 250 fewer than Lambo’s Performante—which admittedly has AWD, versus the Ferrari’s rear drive—and about 550 less than a Corvette ZR1.
The resulting supercar is a track-day showboat and a license-shredder on the street: Ferrari claims 0-62 miles per hour (100 kph) in a seemingly-conservative 2.85 seconds. I suspect enterprising testers will achieve the shorter 0-60 mph run in 2.7 seconds, maybe less. The 0-124 mph sprint (200 kph) takes a ridiculous 7.6 seconds. That’s 0.7 seconds quicker than the old 458 Speciale—the latter one of the best, most-beloved sports cars I’ve ever driven. Top speed rises to 211 mph, up from about 206 in the standard 488.
The private road course of Fiorano offers firsthand evidence as to what this latest berlinetta can do. I’m quickly reacquainted with Ferrari head test driver and engineer Raffaela De Simone, who takes me out for a few smoking laps before turning me loose on my own. The old 458 Speciale circled Fiorano in as little as 1 minute and 23.5 seconds; in pro hands, the 488 Pista is two seconds faster, at 1:21.5, a time which also makes it 1.5 seconds quicker than a standard 488.
Only two production Ferraris have lapped Fiorano in less time than the Pista. One is the hardcore, 770-hp F12 tdf, with a half-second edge over the Pista. The other, in a lap record set by De Simone himself, is the LaFerrari, in 1:19.7. That bears repeating: This Pista, starting from $345,300, gives up just 1.8 seconds per lap to Ferrari’s $1.4-million, 949-hp hypercar.
So, yeah, it’s fast. From its aerodynamic snout to its engine-breathing stern, the Pista takes copious lessons from Ferrari Challenge race cars and the 488 GT3s that have dominated the FIA World Endurance Championships, including two consecutive GT Manufacturer’s titles. Those bona fides are on lavish display at Fiorano, right down to red four-point seat belts that are optional for European buyers, but don’t conform to U.S. regulations. No loss there, unless you enjoy wriggling into and out of racing harnesses every time you stop for fuel or a snack. (Naturally, track-going Americans can still outfit the car with full five-point aftermarket racing belts).
But once I strapped in, the Pista’s point was clear: This supercar drives like a street-legal Challenge racer—minus the racing slicks and massive rear wing, and with a livable ride and sharper steering feel.
Engineers trimmed 40 pounds from the engine alone, and 50 percent of its parts are new. Turbocharger speed sensors on each cylinder bank, mated to the standard 488’s TIAL (titanium/aluminum alloy) turbine wheels, measure boost in real time to maximize power regardless of altitude or ambient temperature. Intake plenums are carbon fiber; compared with the 488, the engine gulps air that’s nearly 15 degrees Celsius cooler. An increased “tumble level” inside the cylinders allows that big, 49-horsepower jump with no engine knock. Connecting rods are pricey titanium, as in Ferrari's F1 cars, while the new exhaust manifold is formed from Inconel alloy. Its ultra-thin design—about 1 mm wide at its slimmest points, versus 3-4 mm for the standard 488—saves nearly 20 pounds, reduces engine back pressure and pumping losses, and contributes to a Pista priority: Improved engine and exhaust sound versus the tepid, strangled-goose mating call of the standard 488. Engineers say the Pista allows up to eight decibels more Italian-tuned glory into the cabin.
“That was a big challenge. We wanted to dramatically change and increase the sound,” one engineer tells me. It worked. This turbocharged Ferrari may not shriek to 9,000 rpm like its predecessors, but the trip to 8,000 rpm is now a ripping, sonorous delight. There’s more “color” to that roar as well, as measured by test graphs that show a visual increase in richer, more-pleasing frequencies. That level of sound is higher and better in every gear, at any engine speed, aided by new exhaust-bypass logic.
A subtle reworking of the glamorous cockpit includes a slathering of Alcantara and carbon-fiber and the elimination of the glovebox from a 488 that was already shy on storage space. A carbon-fiber console places the 488’s three transmission buttons—one of which is launch control—on a striking, curved arm that recalls Batman's batarang. (Hey, DC fans deserve a shout-out too).
Aerodynamics and attendant cooling deserve their own dissertation. “Virtual fairing” of the exposed front tires trims drag by 7 percent, and the car enjoys a 20-percent gain in aero efficiency overall, including 500 pounds of downforce at 124 mph. The Pista’s center stripes—which create the striking two-tone livery, and come in subtle variations of color and pattern—pour down the hood into the race-bred “S-Duct,” another Ferrari showroom first. The striking duct channels air through the front fascia and over the hood to generate front-axle downforce. Indeed, the Pista’s front end is entirely new, including a larger-volume fascia, splitter flicks, and a carbon-fiber hood. Front diffusers vent and accelerate air into the wheel arches, creating suction and downforce.
Among the many tech carryovers from Challenge racing, the front radiators are inverted and canted rearward to direct hot air along the underbody, but well away from side intercooler intakes. In another Challenge-inspired move, the engine intakes move to the car’s rear, to take advantage of that higher-pressure area; the 488’s signature swoopy cleavages aft of the doors are now strictly tasked with feeding the turbo intercoolers and cooling the engine bay. As on the 488 GTB, the rear diffuser incorporates three active flaps that can rotate up to 14 degrees to stall the diffuser and minimize drag, up to that 211-mph top speed. The Pista’s dolphin-tail spoiler grows 30 mm higher and 40 mm longer, and now angles slightly upward for added downforce.
The result is a new definition of insanity for a mid-engine V8 Ferrari. On fantasy ascents and descents in Emilia-Romagna, the Ferrari accelerates so blindingly and connects corners so quickly that I'm forced to recalibrate my sense of relative distance and time. The Pista becomes a deus ex machina version of Mikaele Shiffrin, blowing through slalom gates at downhill speed.
But there's more to this F-car than just its forward pace. Modern Ferraris have become so fast that people tend to overlook how brilliantly they steer, even as hydraulic steering has given way to electric assist. For the Pista’s electrified unit, every fraction of steering input translates to immediate, thrilling action. And while the car’s magnetic-damper suspension is fairly stiff, including spring rates about eight percent firmer than the 488 GTB, the car never feels lumpy or hectic. It's just perfectly dialed-in.
After benchmarking competitors in full-throttle acceleration tests from 2,000 rpm in third gear, Ferrari cites data—and underlines it with real pride—showing that its turbocharged engine produces measurably less lag than any forced-induction rival. (That goes for its application in the Ferrari Portofino convertible, as well). By design, the sound, torque, and acceleration build in concert to the peak of the rev range, mimicking the sensation of naturally aspirated power. And maximum horsepower is on tap everywhere from 6,750 rpm to 8,000 rpm, encouraging regular climbs to those Italian summits.
I definitely achieve my share of maximum horsepower in the Pista, aided by, yes, another new tech bit: The Ferrari Dynamic Enhancer builds on such F1-developed traction strategies as Side Slip Control (now on version 6.0), but with a twist—the system provides high-level oversteer management only when traction control is shut down completely in “CT Off” mode. Yippie-ki-yay, indeed. Software and a new actuation system estimate lateral handling variables throughout each corner, and can trigger individual brake pressure to control the “evolution” of side slip. The idea is to eliminate traction oversight (meaning power reductions) for drivers who can handle it, and help them to push the car’s limits—or enjoy lengthy bouts of oversteer—with fewer steering-wheel or throttle adjustments. We assembled journalists like to pounce on the brake-intervention philosophy, but Ferrari insists this isn’t a traditional stability control system. On a few lonely curves and roundabouts, I find it’s a breeze to keep my foot down, light the Ferrari’s 20-inch tires, and drift smoothly toward the exit with just a souçon of countersteer. Should I credit the Dynamic Enhancer? Who knows? But it feels good.
So good, in fact, that I end up driving the Ferrari for a solid hour in that CT Off mode. I tease out wheelspin from standing starts and upshifts, enjoy some wrenching semi-automated launches, and marvel at how quickly I can drive this Ferrari without my personal danger-radar going off. (Back in America, police radar will be a bigger worry).
Naturally, Michelin developed a unique version of its Pilot Sport Cup 2 tire designated “K2” for the Pista, a tire that boosts dry- and wet-weather grip even as rolling resistance drops by eight percent to save fuel. This 488's diet culminates with spectacular carbon-fiber wheels that weigh 40 percent less than standard 488 rims. Those optional wheels will add about €15,000 to Euro-market models, or $17,700 at current exchange rates, though U.S. pricing for the wheels isn’t set. Considering what supercar buyers shell out for thin, purely-cosmetic carbon-fiber trim bits, a set of highly-engineered, aerospace-coated carbon wheels for around 18 grand actually sounds like a fair deal.
The heightened aggression continues with the Pista’s seven-speed, dual-clutch automated gearbox. Its revised shift cuts gear-change times by 30 milliseconds when the steering wheel manettino switch is in the “Race” position. And the Ferrari racing hand-me-downs peak with the new “wall effect” rev limiter. Traditional electronic limiters, Ferrari says, must predict redline’s arrival and begin to cut fuel well before the engine actually gets there. In the Pista, there’s no such drop in power and loss of momentum. Instead of banging into the rev limiter with that familiar bap-bap-bap sound—a dispiriting thrustus interruptus—the Ferrari continues to supply fuel and accelerate as it broaches the engine’s peak. The propulsive effect proves addictive: On long sweepers in these sun-kissed hillsides, I keep my foot pinned, delay the paddle upshift for a few thrilling beats, and feel the Pista surge and snarl at the literal height of its powers. And because this engine revs so quickly, I’m grateful for Ferrari’s signature cascade of shift lights on the steering wheel.
On public roads, some owners may find shift quality in Race mode to be too brutal, a repeated back slap from an Italian strongman. So when you feel like taking things down a notch, the Ferrari shifts just fine in its Sport setting, or even in full automatic mode. Still, the Pista’s fully-tensed personality and performance is the real reason to buy one, or to upgrade from a civilian-issue 488. Ferrari expects a remarkable 90 percent of U.S. buyers to be current Ferrari owners, more than in any other country.
Supercars and superhero movies are alike in another way: Neither would exist without big budgets and cost overruns. The 488 Pista's $345,300 base price represents a hulking $92,000 premium over a standard 488 GTB. Two track specials down, one to go: With Ferrari and Lamborghini having served up their respective Pista and Performante, the ball blazes into McLaren’s court. Will the upcoming Long Tail version of the 720S one-up Ferrari, Lamborghini, or both? Does it matter? That LT will surely deliver its share of British bragging points—including a superior power-to-weight ratio—over its Italian rivals. (Here’s hoping that ride quality is improved over the previous 675LT, whose body-taxing manners made it a dubious proposition as a daily driver).
But the real takeaway is that supercar fans, like superhero geeks, are living in a Golden Age of options and over-stimulation. Whatever cut of cape you prefer, your supercar will blow mortals’ minds, save the universe, and still leave time for a clever quip before it belts into the stratosphere.
Lawrence Ulrich,The Autance’s chief auto critic, is an award-winning auto journalist and former chief auto critic for The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Detroit native and Brooklyn gentrifier owns a troubled ’93 Mazda RX-7 R1, but may want to give it a good home. Email him at [email protected]